Minh Tsai is on a mission to make tofu the next hip artisanal food. He knows he has a ways to go to get many Americans to even taste tofu, but if anyone can make it cool to eat bean curd, this enthusiastic self-described tofu master is the man for the job.
Tsai grew up eating fresh tofu from street vendors in his native Vietnam. He arrived in the U.S. via Malaysia, part of the so-called boat people exodus. Both his parents were good cooks, but growing up in San Francisco he never found tofu to rival the homemade curd he’d known in his homeland.
Instead, American tofu was industrially produced and hermetically sealed in plastic packages filled with white rubbery blocks soaking in stale, milky water that, says Tsai, would be unrecognizable (and unpalatable) to many in Asia.
Tsai had a successful run in money management before he turned his hand to food production. He weathered several recessions in the economic sector but, after more than a decade, wanted to find work that wasn’t at the mercy of the financial markets.
Since he loved food, and ate out a lot, he decided to try to perfect the food he missed from his early childhood. Tsai and his cousins began experimenting with making tofu and started selling soy products at Bay Area farmers’ markets in 2004.
And that’s how this bean business was born. Recent developments suggest the company is doing well. Hodo Soy Beanery (hodo means “good bean”) opened its new facility in a former candy factory in West Oakland late last year. The plant boasts state-of-the-art machinery designed in consultation with one of the oldest remaining tofu equipment producers in Asia.
Earlier this year the company named chocolate and sparkling wine entrepreneur John Scharffenberger as its new CEO. The addition of this big-picture food guru frees Tsai to focus on the details he does best: new products, quality control, and education.
Hodo products are made from organic, non-GMO soybeans sourced from third-generation growers in the midwest. The beanery makes block tofu, yuba (tofu) skins and soy milk, as well as a ready-to-eat line of soy dishes, such as braised tofu salad, soy omelette, and five-spice tofu nuggets.
Tsai and his crew can be found at Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. Hodo products are sold at Whole Foods, Berkeley Natural Grocery, Monterey Market, Star Grocery, and Tokyo Fish Market, as well as other Bay Area locations.
Tsai has made impressive headway promoting this humble little legume in a relatively short time. Fancy-pants restaurants such as Slanted Door, Coi and Greens use Hodo ingredients, as does Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, Gather, and new Japanese grill Ippuku. Coi chef Daniel Patterson sings the praises of Hodo Soy — and shares yuba recipes too — in the New York Times Magazine.
I caught up with Tsai, 39, this week at the factory. He lives in Albany with his wife and two young sons.
Tofu has a less-than-stellar reputation, considered healthy, hippie food by some, tasteless — or — worse by others. How do you get people excited about your products?
Tofu should taste good, that’s the most important thing for people to know.
I tell people it shouldn’t taste sour, slimy, boring, bland or chalky. That’s a sign of bad tofu. We also encourage people to appreciate it on its own. A lot of people think that it’s important to disguise tofu with sauces or marinades. We don’t subscribe to that idea.
We don’t think of tofu as a meat substitute either. We want people to enjoy it on its own merits. It should be rich, creamy, and remind you of soybeans.
I tell people try three of my products before you tell me you don’t like the taste of tofu. I recommend people try the silken block tofu first and add it to soups or make a scramble with it. It’s also good in fruit smoothies.
What’s new at the factory?
We’re working on a line of tea-infused tofu, where the flavor is embedded inside the block. We’re at the research and development phase.
We’re also leading tours of the factory — in the way John [Scharffenberger] opened his Berkeley chocolate plant to the public — we think it’s important to be transparent and for people to see how this product is made. It’s 90% science and 10% art. We think that by revealing the tofu-making process and demystifying this food we’ll generate interest in our products.
And we’re offering tofu making classes. Our first one is next Thursday. People want to know how to make this themselves.
How are Berkeley Farmers’ Market customers different from other buyers?
There’s a large population of vegetarians who are already eating tofu, so our product is an easy sell to that group.
Berkeley customers are inquisitive, informed and ask a lot of questions. They’re open to trying tofu in new ways or experimenting with different products.
I pretty much know the origin of everything I consume, who raised it and who made it. That’s an unbelievable luxury we have here and I think people here appreciate that too.
Are there other artisanal food producers you admire in the area?
I really like what Alex [Hozven] from Cultured does. She’s very innovative with her fermented food line. I’ll try any of her seasonal sauerkrauts or kombuchas. A lot of what she makes go well with our products.
I think what June Taylor does is phenomenal. I enjoy her preserves on toast. Her products have such integrity. She really knows what to do with fruit. She cuts up, mashes up, cooks down, and bottles. That’s it. She’s perfected an age-old preservation technique. There are no machines involved. I like the purity of the goods she makes.
Steve Sullivan from Acme Bread Company has educated people about bread, how it needs to be eaten fresh, that day or the next. I want people to realize that tofu is like bread. It should be eaten fresh and not kept in the fridge in old water for months. I want to become the tofu version of Acme. That’s my goal.
Any advice for folks new to preparing tofu?
Don’t overcook it. Simple is best. Check out our website for recipes.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
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[Photos: Courtesy Hodo Soy Beanery]